The Me Generation

This is a transcript of a commencement address Nipun Mehta delivered at The Harker School, May 2013. He is the founder of ServiceSpace.org a nonprofit that works at the intersection of gift-economy, technology and volunteerism.

Today, I’m here with some good news and bad news. I’ll give you the good first. You might be surprised to hear this, but you are about to step out into a world that’s in good shape — in fact the best shape that that it’s ever been in. 

The average person has never been better fed than today. Infant mortality has never been lower; on average we’re leading longer, healthier lives. Child labor, illiteracy and unsafe water have ceased to be global norms. Democracy is in, as slavery is disappearing. People don’t have to work as hard to just survive. A bicycle in 1895 used to cost 260 working hours, today we’ve gotten that number down to 7.2.

So, things are progressing. But I’m afraid that’s not the full story. You’ll want to brace yourselves, because this is the bad news part.

This week, Time Magazine’s cover story labeled you guys as the “Me, Me, Me” generation; the week before, NY Times reported that the suicide rate for Gen X went up by 30% in the last decade, and 50% for the boomer generation. We’ve just learned that atmospheric carbon levels surpassed 400 PPM for the first time in human history. Our honeybee colonies are collapsing, thereby threatening the future of our food supply. And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What we’re handing over to you is a world full of inspiring realities coupled with incredibly daunting ones. In other words: miserable and magical isn’t just a pop-song lyric — it’s the paradox that you are inheriting from us.

So, what do you do with that? I’m going to be honest — I don’t really know. 🙂 I do know this, though: 
At the core of all of today’s most pressing challenges is one fundamental issue: we have become profoundly disconnected.

Rather ironic, considering that we live in an era where Facebook has spawned 150 billion “connections”, as we collectively shell out 4.5 billion likes on status updates, every single day. Yet, a growing body of science is showing what we already feel deep in our gut: we’re more isolated than ever before. The average American adult reports having just one real friend that they can count on. Just one. And for the first time in 30 years, mental health disabilities such as ADHD outrank physical ones among American children. 

Somehow we’ve allowed our relationship to gadgets and things to overtake our real-world ties.

We’ve forgotten how to rescue each other. 
Yet, deep inside we all still have that capacity. We know we have it because we saw it at Sandy Hook, in the brave teachers who gave up their lives to save their students. We saw it during the Boston Marathon when runners completed the race and kept running to the nearest blood bank. We saw it just this week in Oklahoma when a waiter at a fast food chain decided to donate all his tips to the tornado relief efforts and triggered a chain of generosity.

So we know that we can tap into our inner goodness when crisis strikes. But can we do it on a run-of-the-mill Monday?

That’s the question in front of you. Will you, class of 2013 step up to rebuild a culture of trust, empathy and compassion? Our crisis of disconnection needs a renaissance of authentic friendship. We need you to upgrade us from Me-Me-Me to We-We-We.

Reflecting on my own journey, there have been three keys that helped me return to a place of connection. I’d like to share those with you today, in the hope that perhaps it might support your journey.

** Stay tuned for the continued story

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